Lie and You Thrive
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George Bush is seeking re-election as the Hero of 9/11 and as the Strong Leader against terrorism. At the recent Republican convention, speaker after speaker portrayed Bush's reaction on and shortly after 9/11 as an entitlement to extending Bush's power over the American people.
Perhaps never before has a president sought a second term by endlessly hyping the catastrophic failures of his first four years in office. On both 9/11 and Iraq, the Bush campaign team long ago decided that truth is a luxury American voters can no longer afford.
Instead of admitting that 9/11 was the biggest U.S. intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, the Bush administration turned 9/11 into a moral Dunkirk. From the first days after 9/11, the Bush administration created a mythology that would spur reverence for both the president and the government. Bush wrapped himself in a flag drenched with the blood of Americans who died due to the failure of the federal government he commanded, and sadly the people bought it – and still continue to buy it. In a September 7-9 national poll, Bush led Kerry on who the people believed would keep the United States safe by 23 points.
In the days after 9/11, Bush and his top officials again and again falsely denied that the government had received prior warnings of a terrorist attack. If Americans had learned in mid-September 2001 how badly federal agencies failed across the board, the number of Americans who trusted the government to do the right thing would not have doubled in the days after the attacks. The government failed – so the government declared itself infallible.
As public confidence in government soared, the Bush administration raced to capitalize on the window of gullibility. The Bush administration strong-armed Congress to speedily enact the Patriot Act, and issued orders gutting habeas corpus and nullifying all rights of those Bush labeled enemy combatants. Bush exploited people's grief and fear to add new fetters to American citizens, to empower federal agents to intrude further into private lives, and to seek to change the permanent balance of power between the federal government and American citizens.
Bush's manipulation of 9/11 for his re-election campaign helps explain why his administration fights so doggedly to suppress the details of what happened that day. Bush promised to cooperate fully with the congressional Joint Intelligence Committee investigation in 2002. The Bush administration blocked the committee from interviewing an FBI informant who rented rooms to two of the 19 hijackers, refused to disclose whether the Office of Management and Budget had slashed counterterrorism budget requests, refused to permit an interview with CIA chief George Tenet, refused to disclose the National Security Agency's plans to cope with new technology challenges, and fought to prevent congressional investigators from learning when Bush received specific warning information about terrorist plots. The report was finished in late 2002 but the White House blocked its publication until July 2003.
Congress responded to the Bush stonewall to its committee by passing a law creating an 9/11 commission. Bush made his intentions clear when he appointed cover-up connoisseur Henry Kissinger as commission chairman. (Kissinger resigned after public demands that he disclose his business clients). Bush proclaimed that he wanted the commission to "uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September 11." But the White House fought the commission staff tooth-and-nail to prevent them from seeing a President's Daily Brief from August 6, 2001 entitled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US." Prior to the memo's public disclosure, National Security Advisor Condi Rice misled the commission, claiming it was a historical document. Patty Casazza, one of a group of "Jersey girls" who lost their husbands on 9/11 and subsequently publicly turned up the heat on the government to open its records, commented recently: "It was President Bush who thwarted our attempts at every turn."
And the Washington establishment effectively blessed Bush's stonewall. After he and Vice President Cheney met with the 9/11 commissioners for several hours on April 29, Bush cheerfully announced in the Rose Garden, "We answered all their questions.... I think it was important for them to see our body language, as well, how we work together." But the commissioners were presumably seeking historical evidence, not scoping out prospects in a singles bar. Bush's light-hearted manner after the meeting revealed that the commissioners had genuflected to the man and the office.
The Bush administration's ability to con the American people on 9/11 helped fuel their frauds on Iraq. It is now beyond dispute that many of the specific statements made by Bush on Iraqi weapons were false. Even Bush has conceded that his frequent efforts to link Saddam Hussein to 9/11 were unfounded (though this has not stopped Cheney from repeating the link to audiences which have pre-signed loyalty oaths to the Bush administration).
Some of Bush's falsehoods on Iraq have nothing to do with bad intel. From January 2003 onward to the invasion, Bush constantly portrayed the United States as an innocent victim of Saddam's imminent aggression. On January 28, 2003, in his State of the Union address, Bush vowed: "If war is forced upon us, we will fight in a just cause.... And if war is forced upon us, we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military, and we will prevail." There was never any evidence that a war was forced upon the American people – at least not by a foreign government.
Far from showing any contrition, Bush treats his Iraqi falsehoods as a joke. On March 24, 2004, appearing at the Radio and Television Correspondents annual dinner in Washington, Bush put on a light-hearted slide show entitled the "White House Election-Year Album." One series of slides showed a perplexed Bush crawling around on his knees, checking behind a curtain and moving chairs in the Oval Office. Bush quipped for the crowd: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere.... Nope, no weapons over there.... Maybe under here?" The president's jests got a hearty laugh and applause from the government and media dignitaries.
Bush now tells lies of the same breadth and brightness as he did before he invaded Iraq. In an April press conference, Bush claimed: "By helping secure a free Iraq, Americans serving in that country are protecting their fellow citizens.... Above all, the defeat of violence and terror in Iraq is vital to the defeat of violence and terror elsewhere and vital, therefore, to the safety of the American people." It is tripe to claim that violence in Iraq is linked to violence everywhere in the world. Iraq was no hotbed of terrorism before the United States invaded. Bush has turned a California-sized country into the world's largest terrorist training camp. And the actions of American forces are creating the best recruiting advertisements for terrorist groups. Not only does Bush continue to trumpet the lie that his war has protected the U.S. from terror, but he boasts of "progress" in Iraq, while America's military experts see the war as "lost." Jeffrey Record, a professor of strategy at a U.S. war college recently told Salon, "I see no ray of light on the horizon at all.... The worst case has become true."
Bush, in his comments at the Republican convention and in stump speeches, makes it stark that he feels entitled to be cheered and revered for his courage in "making a tough decision" on invading Iraq. It is as if the more Americans die from Bush's folly, the more undeniable his greatness becomes. In a Time magazine interview last month, Bush described the Iraq war as a "catastrophic success." This comment, which is half right, is far more accurate than most Bush comments on that part of the world.
There are no harmless political lies about a war. The more such lies citizens tolerate, the more wars they are likely to get. Every lie that is tolerated about one war becomes an engraved invitation to launch another war. Because Americans acquiesced to Bush's blarney about his invasion of Afghanistan, Bush faced less resistance to invading Iraq. And every Bush lie about Iraq that is now tolerated by the American people increases the odds of Bush going to war against Iran if he were re-elected.
Will Bush be permitted to lie his way to four more years of power over Americans? It is almost inconceivable that the average American would trust a used car dealer who had engaged in the type of stunts that Bush has pulled to deceive us on both 9/11 and Iraq.
And yet, because Americans are continually reminded of their patriotic duty to think well of their rulers, Bush has a good chance to exploit people's trust to further shackle them. If Bush wins re-election after his campaign portrays his greatest failures as his loftiest achievements, then Americans can expect even more debacles in the future. And at some point, the casualties and carnage – and reality – may become so bleak that even Bush supporters will recognize that the president is campaigning on his greatest liabilities.